Classical Antiquity in Medieval Art

Classical antiquity played a major role in art throughout the Middle Ages. Artist employed ancient motifs in Christian art. The classical history and legends acted as models for noble behavior. In the east, the Byzantine Empire retained many traditions of antiquity in their institutions and culture. This is reflected in their art whose form, decoration and iconography represent a classical awareness. Even in the far west, the classical traditions were blended with traditions of the Germanic tribes. A classical revival took place in the 9th century under rule of Charlemagne

To understand how and why Greco-Roman elements were used in the visual arts one needs to be informed of the history of this period. Although the Roman Empire fell its traditions survived. The Byzantine Empire and Carolingian Empires found great value in classical learning and preserved classical heritage so we can learn about it today.

The Early Byzantine period begins with the founding of Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337). The new capital was built on the Greek port town of Byzantion. The location of the new capital was essential to the empire’s success. It was center between the western and eastern halves of the Roman Empire and thus had control over trade routes between Europe and the East.

Constantine was the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. The legendary Battle of the Milvian Bridges in 312 helped Constantine gain sole control of the empire. He claimed his victory to his new faith of Christianity. He made Christianity legal in the empire. However, it wasn’t until the late 300’s Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-423) made Christianity the official religion of the state. With the patronage of Constantine many churches such as St. Peter’s and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre were built at sacred Christian sites. The pagan gods slowly changed throughout the empire and were replaced by the Christian God.

In the fifth century the western part of the Roman Empire fell to Germanic tribes. Emperors of the eastern area continue to call their selves “Romans.” Today we call this empire the Byzantine Empire. The Roman law and culture was not completely erased when Christianity became the official religion of the state. Classical traditions were still used to sustain the Byzantine Empire. The Greek language was still the official language of the government. Schools looked to Greco-Roman culture in aspects of literature and the visual arts. Many of the old Roman lands were regained under the rule of emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565). Ravenna served as the western capital of the empire instead of Rome. Throughout the empire artistic traditions of the Byzantine states prospered.

The Byzantine Empire’s history is contains many attacks by Germanic tribes on the western borders. Warfare also served as cultural exchanges and Christianity began to sweep the West. In 395, the Byzantine Empire was spilt into eastern and western halves ruled by Arcadias (r. 395-408) and Honorius (r. 379-395); sons of Theodosius I. The kingdoms to the west were established by Germanic tribes and many were officially recognized by Constantinople. Elements of the Bronze Age and Celtic influences were combined with Roman and Byzantine elements in the arts in the western kingdoms.

Christianity continued to sweep through Europe and converts adopted local culture to the new religion. The Anglo-Saxon in England converted to Christianity in 430’s. King Clovis (r. 481-511) converted the Franks in 496. The growing Christian peoples became more and more distant from Byzantium and established separate alliances with the church in Rome.

In the 800’s Charlemagne was crowned imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans) by the Pope Leo III (795-816) from Rome. The Byzantines recognized Charlemagne as basileus (King) of the Franks in 812. Charlemagne wanted to create a new Roman empire and throughout his reign he continued to look to classical traditions as a model. His Court School at Aachen was based in Greco-Roman traditions and thus a classical revival was present in art under his rule.

Elements of classical traditions such as form, decorations and iconography were used in religious and secular art. Christianity benefitted from the assimilation of the past with the new to help spread the religion through out Europe.

An example of a classical motif that continued into the Christian era is found in a Byzantine mosaic created in the early 6th century. Developed by Stoic Philosophers, personifications were figures presenting abstract ideas. The Personification of Ktisis depicts a richly bejeweled woman. The Greek inscription above her head has been restored to indentify her as “Ktisis”; the personification of an act of donation or foundation. What also indentifies her is the object in her hand. It is a Roman tool used for measuring. To her right a male figure once offered her a cornucopia. Above his head we see the Greek word for “good”. Originally, we would have seen a similar male figure to her left with the inscription that would complete the phrase “Good Wishes.”

Fragment of a Floor Mosaic with a Personification of Ktisis, Byzantine 500–550The woman depicted in the mosaic is wearing large hanging earrings of pearls, a lavish necklace of stones and two brooches. One holds her mantle and the other holds together her dress. The diadem, a hairpiece, and the neckline are ornamented with black and white tesserea creating a bejeweled patterned. Among green and red glass gemstones blue stone are placed to represent sapphires or “hyacinths.” This style was popular during 6th century Byzantine. The women face is modeled with soft green, pink, white and beige tesserea. The most eye-catching feature is the large, staring eyes. The styles of the eyes are typical of the Byzantine painting of this period and are later seen in the use of icons.

The same kind of “Ktisis” images survive in other floor mosaics from bathhouses to churches throughout the empire. San’t Apollinare Nouvo in Ravenna also have mosaics with images of women with similar hairstyles, jewelry and style of faces. Although built by an Ostrogothic King, Theoderic, San’t Apollinare Nuovo has strong influence in style and iconography from Rome.

Even when the subject is no longer classical, artworks often have a style that is reflective of classical traditions. In Karavas, in northern Cyprus, a small hoard of gold jewelry and treasures were found in 1902. Parts of the treasure were nine silver plates depicting the life of David from the Old Testament. The set of nine plates were separated and three plates are now currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The other three are in Nicosia at the Cyprus Museum. Originally, the nine plated would have been arranged to from a Christogram. Christogram is a monogram for the name Christ using the Greek letters χ and a cross. The largest plate would have been set in the center with four middle sized plates directly above and below and left and right. Between the middle sized plates were four small plates.

Center Plate depicting battle scene
Center Plate depicting battle scene




Dated from 629-630, The David Plates are elaborate silver plates with low relief scenes of David’s life. The artwork is attributed to Syrian workmanship in the city of Antioch. Other jewelry and silverware were found near Antioch with similar styles and are contemporary to the David Plates. The plates were originally created for the Emperor Heraclius. His control stamps can be found on the back of each plate. He commissioned the plates to be made to celebrate his victory over Sasanian Empire in 628-629. This conquest was important because it regained Byzantine land such as Jerusalem, a sacred site for Christians. The legend goes that Heraclius fought the enemy’s general Razatis singlehanded and beheaded him. The story of David also includes a battle. David fights and beheads the Philistine’s giant, Goliath, in man to man combat with guidance from God. Heraclius consciously chooses this story on his commemorate plates to draw a connection from himself and the biblical hero David.

The largest plate of the set is a stunning example of the highly skilled silversmiths of this Byzantine Empire. The low reliefs were created with extreme awareness to classical traditions. The plate depicts the part of David’s story where he fight and defeats Goliath. The circular plate is divided into three registers.

The top register depicts David before a personification of water or a stream and the Philistine’s giant, Goliath, in full armor. David has removed the armor given to him by Saul. He is depicted with a halo as he is throughout the scenes to illustrate his holiness. His shepherd’s staff has been transformed into an imperial scepter with an orb at the top.

“When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance. The Philistine said to David “Am I a dog that you come to me with stick?”

The personification of water is a representation of the stream that David gathers his stones he uses in battle. The figure is a classical male nude created with naturalism and detail. He is seated with a jug of water to identify him. He is the ideal nude seen in classical traditions with young, muscled body covered with a toga and crown of acanthus leaves atop his head. Behind the scene are two sets of groupings of towers with pointed and rounded roofs. They represent the cities of the Israelites and Philistines. Above the figures there is a semicircular protrusion of the heavens complete with stars, a moon and God’s hand directed at David.

At the center of the plate we see the largest figures and it depicts the climax of the story; the battle between David and Goliath. At the left of center we see David identified with his lack of armor and his rock and slingshot. The movement of his cloth is a conscious reference to Hellenistic drapery. Again we see the halo around David’s youthful face. Goliath is shown with helmet and shield reminiscent to classical Greco-Roman armor. The shield is ornamented with a plant like radial design that is created using fine detailing such as engraving or punching by the artist. When looking at the modeling of Goliath’s muscles we are once again reminiscent of classical traditions such as figures from the pediment of the Parthenon. Four outer soldiers also depict the detail of naturalism in their muscles particularity in the legs. The soldiers anxiously watching their leaders fight their battle before them.

“So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.”

The bottom registers returns to small sized figure as seen in the upper register. Here we are welcomed to the gruesome end of the battle; David’s beheads Goliath. We see David’s slingshot and stones behind him and the useless shield and spear behind Goliath. Again we see the artist’s attempt to create naturalism of the human figure in the silver. The use of traditional classic style with a non-classical subject is common for this era.


Plaques with Scenes from the Story of Joshua, 10th century, Middle Byzantine
Plaques with Scenes from the Story of Joshua, 10th century, Middle Byzantine


The Old Testament is the inspiration for three Ivory plaques that originated in Constantinople from the 10th century. Once again here we see classical style used with Christian iconography in The Plaques of the story of Joshua. The plaques would have been hinged together to form a box. We can look at the Casket with Warrior and Dancers from the 11th century. It is also from the Byzantine Empire although a century later. It was used as a luxury item and is classical in its subject matter and style. In the largest plaque of the story of Joshua we can see the resemblance to the Casket with Warrior and Dancers in the design to accommodate the lock plate. Ivory boxes were popular in the Byzantine Empire at this time to serve as containers for gifts and were luxuries object the rich displayed to promote their wealth. The numerous examples of ivory boxes found from the 10th century provide evidence that the empire was prospering and exhibiting a cultural renaissance

The story being told on the plaques is how Joshua recaptured the Holy Land from the Old Testament. Each plate has an inscription from the Book of Joshua in Greek. In the first plaque Joshua leads Israelites in ambushing the army led by the king of Ai. The inscription reads

“And Joshua stretched out the spear that he had his hand toward the city… and the ambush arose quickly… and slew the men of Ai.”

The dense composition of the first and largest plaque we see soldiers dressed in armor with shields and spears in battle. Illusionistic space is created in the superposition of figures. Like many classical relief carving the artist was attempting to recreate a naturalistic scene. Like the numerous figures found in the Column of Trajan in Rome, soldiers are identical and are using to help define the space.

The second scene has two events from the story of Joshua in its composition. We see Joshua seated and the captive King of Ai bowing before him defeated. The seated Joshua is reminiscent of the philosopher pose found in classic traditions and used later for Jesus Christ. The panel is filled with soldiers attending the condemning of the defeated. On the right upper corner we see the king of Ai a second time hanging with his head between a forked stake. The inscription reads “and the king of Ai they… brought him to Joshua… [and] he hanged on a tree until eventide.”

The third panel depicts the Gibeon ambassadors being received by Joshua. Here they are showing Joshua the torn clothes that represent their journey to him and his protection. From Joshua 9 the inscription reads “The Gibeonites Displaying Their Torn Clothes.” It is in this panel we see an excellent example of drapery and naturalistic style of the figure under the drapery. It is similar to the Hellenistic style.

Around each of the plaques we see a border of rosettes and medallions with portrait heads in profile. The portrait heads is another feature that is recalling classical traditions. They may refer to antique coins like the Medallion of Constantius Chlorus from the mint at Trier in the third century. While this particular coin may not be the direct resource the artist who created the Plaques of the story of Joshua may have using a similar coin as inspiration. Portrait profiles on coinage were popular throughout the Roman Empire because gave emperors the ability to extend their presence.

Research has found that the plaque originally was painted with bright colors. This greatly alters from how we see it today. In the 10th century it had a blue background made from lapis lazuli, rosettes painted deep red and the armor and helmets stood out in gold. Imagine the scene with the bright colors and one can see the link to illuminated manuscripts. The Joshua Roll from the 10th century during the Middle Byzantine Renaissance is a likely candidate to be a resource for the plaques of story of Joshua. The Joshua Roll was created to exhibit the attraction of the Emperor in the resurgence of classical art and interest of the life of Joshua. Joshua was a popular character like many stories of the Old Testament because of his embodiment of a great Biblical hero and ideals of the Macedonian renaissance. The Macedonian or Middle Byzantine Renaissance occurred by the uplifting the ban on idols and the rule of Emperor Basil I which Byzantine art flourished. I The Old Testament was popular resource of the Middle Byzantine Empire because people often identified themselves with the Jews in their military victories of regaining the Holy Land from the Arabs much like the Jew’s earlier victories centuries before.

A renaissance was taking place in the west that like Byzantine Renaissance in the east. Both looked to classical traditions to create new style assimilated with local customs. The Carolingian Renaissance began with a new empire that arose in the later half of the eight century when Charlemagne (r. 768-814) started the Carolingian dynasty (768-877) in continental Europe. Charlemagne wanted to revive the Roman Empire and has that statement inscribed on his official seal. However, the Carolingians were not Greco-Roman in descent but of Frankish ancestry.

Charlemagne was crown emperor by Pope Leo the III (795-816) in the year 800. Pope Leo the III declared Charlemagne the rightful successor of Constantine, the first Christian emperor. This event is significant because the papacy’s approval reinforced Charlemagne power over his empire of western Germany, France, the Langobard kingdom in Italy and the Low Countries (modern Belgium and Holland.) It also supported the relationship between the papacy in Rome and the secular government in the west.

Charlemagne rise to power and his desire to restore Western Europe as a Christian state influenced the revival of arts and learning. Aachen, Germany was an educational center that Charlemagne created his Court School. He had architects, painters and sculptors who looked at Rome and Ravenna for inspiration. However, the new Carolingian style was not just a copy of classical traditions but a new northern version of the “Imperial Christian Style.”


Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist, early 9th century, Early Medieval
Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist, early 9th century, Early Medieval


We have looked at ivories of the Byzantine Empire and we will see how classical traditions also are great resource for the Carolingian Empire. The Plaque with Saint John the Evangelist was created in the early 9th century in Charlemagne’s Court School in Aachen. Saint John the Evangelist was one of Jesus Christ’s twelve apostles and the author of the Gospel of John. In this high relief carving he is seated frontally with his Gospel and its opening phrase in Latin; IN PRINCI /PIO ERAT / VERBVM (“In the beginning was the Word”). Above the scene on the border we see an inscription. In Latin it reads; MOREVLANSAQVILEVERBUM PETITASTRA [JOANNES?] (By means of the flying eagle, St. John through the world reaches the heavens.) This line is from “Carmen Paschale” written by fifth century Christian writer Sedulius. Around the Saint columns with a curtain wrapped around its shaft and an arch decorated with acanthus leaves provided us with an interior space. Acanthus leaves are also seen in the columns capitals which are the Corinthian order. The artist/s consciously used this element to draw a connection to classical heritage. Within the acanthus leaved arch we see Saint John’s Christian symbol, the eagle. The eagle has a halo and a book like the human saint below him. Saint John with a decorated halo looks off of the picture plane. His pallium and mantle are carved with great skill. The cloth looks as if it was water running over the figure. This extreme fluidity in the drapery patterns and ornamental textures like the acanthus leaves are a characteristic of the Court School at Aachen.

The Personification of Ktisis showed how classical motifs were still being used into the Christian era. The David Plated were an excellent example of classical style of naturalism in silver was used to tell a Christian story. The Plaques of the Story of Joshua provided proof that a cultural renaissance in Byzantium was reviving Greco-Roman traditions The Plaque of Saint John the Evangelist reflect a Carolingian Renaissance where Greco-Roman elements were consciously in Christian art. Even today we see elements of classical traditions in our buildings, art, government and literature. Because of the Empire of the Middle Ages awareness and appreciation of classical traditions we can feel their presence in our culture.

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